President’s comments at Faculty Senate meeting of Dec. 1, 2016

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne made the following comments at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016.

In what has been a time of change for our country, we sought, as you know, to affirm our values as an academic community in several communications to the campus.

First, the day after the election, understanding the questions and the uncertainties it raised for many people in our community, the provost, the provost-designate and the president –John, Persis and I – sent a note to every member of the campus community affirming our commitment to diversity and inclusion, to the free and open exchange of ideas, and to a culture of mutual respect. As all of you know, the senate followed with its own statement the next day, also affirming our community values.

Many of you are aware that on Nov. 21 we issued another university statement on campus climate and immigration. It was published in Stanford Report; it’s found on our websites. We wanted to affirm again our institutional values amid campus developments.

First, in the face of increased reports of people from a variety of backgrounds and across the political spectrum feeling targeted or silenced on our campus, we reaffirmed that intolerance of others based on background, identity, or political views is antithetical to our values. And we emphasized that the university supports the ability of undocumented students to continue their studies at Stanford and complete a degree here. We reiterated our support for the DREAM act for undocumented students and for DACA, an executive action of the government that’s allowed many undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to continue their education without fear of imminent deportation.

These are longstanding positions of the university that the university has taken based on our core values. Many of you will recall that several years ago President Hennessy and President Drew Faust of Harvard coauthored a statement on these issues, and to reaffirm this longstanding position, on Nov. 21 we also joined a number of university presidents in signing a public letter in support of DACA, even though we have a practice of not adding our name to petitions or statements when we haven’t been involved in crafting the language within them.

I think it’s important to emphasize that we made these statements as a reaffirmation of our fundamental values. As you know, Stanford does not typically issue statements taking positions on political or policy issues, and we engage only when the subject matter directly relates to our ability to carry out our core missions of research, education and clinical care. And we have that narrow focus for two reasons.

First, you’ll recall that Stanford University is prohibited from engaging in political activity under federal law due to our nonprofit status as an educational organization. But even more important, our engagement is also narrowly limited in recognition of the university’s fundamental commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, which are essential to our twin missions of education and research. As scholars and educators, we question accepted notions, in order to seek the truth, and we challenge each other with ideas and opinions that may be different from our own in order to stimulate intellectual growth. Official institutional positions can stifle the free exchange of ideas that is so central to our purpose.

Just to quote from our policy on academic freedom, we seek to encourage “the expression of the widest range of viewpoints” in our community, “free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.”

Of course, as individuals every member of our community is free to express political views in a personal capacity. However, as an institution, and as educators and employees acting on behalf of the university, we must continue to navigate the difference between affirming our values on the one hand, and on the other taking political positions whether in the classroom or elsewhere that could stifle some members of our community.

In the period ahead I think we can expect that our country and our campus will likely be engaged in a robust discussion of many issues. As an institution, again, we must provide a forum for this discussion, and we can only do this by refraining from making political pronouncements that may impede the exchange of ideas. This does not, however, conflict with the remaining unwavering support of our core values, and on supporting and nurturing the diverse and inclusive community that is so important to us.